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Whitaker v. Holy Family Social Services

February 27, 2008

WILLIAM WHITAKER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
HOLY FAMILY SOCIAL SERVICES, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Terrence F. McVerry United States District Court Judge

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER OF COURT

Presently before the Court for disposition is the MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT, with brief in support, filed by Defendant, Holy Family Social Services ("Holy Family") (Document Nos. 27 and 28, respectively), and the brief in opposition filed by Plaintiff, William Whitaker (Document No. 35), the REPLY BRIEF filed by Holy Family (Document No. 38), and the RESPONSE TO REPLY BRIEF filed by Plaintiff (Document No. 41).

The issues have been fully briefed and the matter is ripe for disposition. After a careful consideration of the motion, the filings in support and opposition thereto, the memoranda of the parties, the relevant case law, and the record as a whole, the Court finds that there is not sufficient record evidence upon which a reasonable jury could return a verdict for Plaintiff on his claims of race discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA"). Accordingly, the motion for summary judgment will be granted.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff, William Whitaker ("Plaintiff"), brought this lawsuit on May 4, 2006, by the filing of a two-count Complaint against his former employer, Holy Family. Plaintiff alleges that his employment was unlawfully terminated on the basis of his race.

Holy Family has filed the instant motion for summary judgment in which it contends that it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law because Plaintiff is unable to establish a prima facie case of race discrimination or, in the alternative, that Plaintiff had not adduced any evidence from which a reasonable factfinder could either (i) disbelieve Holy Family's articulated non-discriminatory reason for the termination of Plaintiff's employment or (ii) believe that an invidious discriminatory reason was more likely than not a determinative cause for its decision.

BACKGROUND

As the law requires, all disputed facts and inferences are to be resolved most favorable to the Plaintiff.

Holy Family is a social service agency that provides care, treatment and education services to abused and neglected children and their families. Holy Family provides services under three core programs: (i) the Residential Program; (ii) the In-Home Program; and (iii) the Drug and Alcohol Outpatient Program. The Residential Program provides services to children between the ages of 6 and 18 who are no longer in the care of their families due to reasons of abuse, neglect, abandonment, or the inability of the parents to meet the emotional needs of their child. The children in the Residential Program live under the care and control of Holy Family in one of several facilities either owned or managed by Holy Family.

The principal residential facility of Holy Family is located in Emsworth, Pennsylvania, where children reside in group homes or cottages. In addition to the residential facilities at Emsworth, Holy Family also provides residential treatment in semi-independent living programs in apartment settings. One of the apartment facilities is located at the Alder Ridge apartment complex in Ross Township, Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. In April 2004, the time period relevant to this action, Holy Family had three (3) apartments in that apartment complex, including Apartments 901 and 902.

Plaintiff was hired by Holy Family in May 2002, as a Primary Youth Counselor. Primary Youth Counselors are trained to avoid physical confrontations with residents and to manage situations in a non-violent manner. "Passive physical restraint," which involves placing hands on the resident to physically control them, is to be used sparingly and only as a last resort. Even when a resident physically assaults a staff member, Primary Youth Counselors are trained to block the resident's punches and move away and, when possible, obtain the help of another staff member.

Where there is an incident of physical contact between a Primary Youth Counselor and a resident of Holy Family, the Primary Youth Counselor's immediate supervisor is "responsible for evaluating the situation." Specifically, the supervisor "evaluates the incident, the precipitating event, the event itself, the interventions used, the prior interventions used, and then based on the evaluation of it, other steps follow." If the supervisor concludes there is no misconduct, the supervisor signs the incident report and Elizabeth Stephenson, the Residential Program Director, reads and signs the incident report. If the supervisor concludes that there was misconduct on the part of the staff member, the supervisor reviews with Ms. Stephenson the results of the investigation and any plan of correction, including a recommendation on discipline, that he or she has developed. Ms. Stephenson does not conduct the investigation.

In cases in which the supervisor has recommended termination, Ms. Stephenson reviews the supervisor's recommendation and discusses the recommendation with Keith Neyland, the Director of Human Resources of Holy Family, and Kevin Jenkins, Executive Director of Holy Family.

Upon being hired, Plaintiff received approximately eight (8) hours of crisis intervention training. A year later, in May 2003, he received additional crisis management training.

When Plaintiff was hired, he was initially assigned to King Hall, one of the cottages at the Emsworth facility. In February 2003, Plaintiff was transferred to the apartment setting and assigned to Apartment 901 at Alder Ridge apartment complex, where he was responsible for four (4) teenage boys. During the school year, Plaintiff generally worked the 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. shift, and another counselor worked during the 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m. shift, after which the boys went to school.

At the time of the incident giving rise to this lawsuit, Plaintiff had been a Primary Youth Counselor in Apartment 901 for approximately fourteen (14) months and lived in Apartment 901 with JR, the boy involved in the incident that resulted in Plaintiff's termination; GM; and BW for between nine (9) and fourteen (14) months. The fourth boy, RT, who was not present when the incident occurred, had moved into the apartment approximately three (3) months earlier.*fn1

On April 29, 2004, Plaintiff arrived at Apartment 901 to begin his shift at 2:30 p.m. and then went to pick up the boys from school. Plaintiff testified that nothing unusual occurred in the vehicle during the drive from school to the Alder Ridge apartments. Plaintiff testified that once at the apartment, he found out from one of the other boys that JR had a cigarette lighter in his possession. Plaintiff told JR that if he did in fact have a cigarette lighter JR needed to give it to Plaintiff as it was against regulations to be in possession of a lighter. JR stated that he did not have a lighter and walked back into his bedroom.

A short time later, as Plaintiff was sitting on a small sofa in the living room of the apartment watching television, he saw, out of the corner of his eye, JR walk into the room and saw a "projectile" come across his path. The lighter came to rest in front of Plaintiff on the floor. Plaintiff testified that he did not see JR toss the lighter and Plaintiff was not hit with the lighter.

After JR tossed the lighter, JR did not move towards Plaintiff and instead put his hands back in his pockets and starting walking away from the Plaintiff. Plaintiff testified that he "got off the couch" and "walked up to [JR] approximately maybe two feet away from him." JR kept his hands in his pockets and Plaintiff testified that he repeatedly told JR to take his hands out of his pockets and let him see what else he had in his hands, but that JR refused and kept his hands in his pockets. Plaintiff testified that his head "accidentally" contacted JR's head. Plaintiff also testified that JR struck him on the left side of his head, hitting his left ear, that Plaintiff grabbed JR's arm, and both JR and Plaintiff fell onto the small sofa and then onto the floor. Plaintiff testified that he was momentarily dazed by JR's punch, and that his knees buckled.

As a result of the altercation with Plaintiff, JR suffered facial injuries, including a large welt around his eye, and bruises and abrasions to other parts of his body.

The other boys in Apartment 901 asked Mr. Paris Akins, the Primary Youth Counselor in Apartment 902, to come over to Apartment 901 and assist with the situation which had arisen between JR and Plaintiff.

Scott Schreiber, Plaintiff's immediate supervisor, arrived at Apartment 901 shortly after Plaintiff's incident with JR. Mr. Schreiber immediately began to investigate the incident. Mr. Schreiber testified that Plaintiff told him that "he had to restrain [JR] . . . that [JR] threw a lighter at him and that [JR] punched him." Plaintiff also told Mr. ...


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